By Will Flanders, Ph.D. and Collin Roth
Education reformers like to say that a child’s zip code shouldn’t determine their future. It has been one of the core arguments of school choice for decades. But in Wisconsin, despite the best efforts of education reformers, we’ve created an unequal system where zip code does determine what education options are available to parents. Bringing uniformity to school choice access in Wisconsin remains one of the key sticking points in current budget negotiations in Madison.
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) is the nation’s oldest private school voucher program in the country. It is used by more than 28,000 students and, if it were its own school district, it would be the second largest in the state. What the MPCP does is offer hope. It provides an avenue for low-income, mostly minority students to have an option besides the Milwaukee Public Schools. Those options have afforded thousands of children the opportunity to attend some high quality schools.
But the MPCP and its sister program the Racine Parental Choice Program are only available to families that live within the limits of those two cities. For families in Brown Deer, West Allis, or South Milwaukee, let alone the rest of the state, education options are limited to the newer Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP). As it stands, these programs have important differences that only serve to close the door on families who want choice in education.
The MPCP has no enrollment caps and is available to all families in Milwaukee up to 300% of the poverty line. But the WPCP has strict enrollment caps (2% of a district’s enrollment in 2017-18) and is pegged at 185% of the poverty line or below. What this effectively does is open up school choice for a family of four in Milwaukee and Racine making just $48,000 per year, but closes that door for a family in West Allis, Cudahy, or Brown Deer.
There is no doubt that many Wisconsin families outside of Milwaukee and Racine are in desperate need of school options. More than 53,000 kids throughout the state attend school in failing districts according to DPI. Our own research has found that kids in rural areas are more likely to need remediation classes in college and have lower levels of proficiency on state exams than kids in urban areas. These problems do not cease to exist when a family reaches 186% of the poverty line.
Furthermore, limiting school choice programs to the poorest families is antithetical to the conservative foundations of the concept. Like the statewide program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) was originally reserved for very poor families, as a tenuous coalition came together to support its passage. But over time, the program has come to increasingly fulfill Milton Friedman’s original vision by encompassing a broader swath of the middle class.
We are, obviously, a long way off from the full realization of Friedman’s vision for school choice. And maybe that’s OK given practical realities. But creating a uniform system where education opportunities are afforded to all families in Wisconsin of the same income levels is an issue of fundamental fairness. We shouldn’t be telling struggling parents in one part of the state they’re “too middle class” to qualify for a program that they could use if they just happened to live in a bigger city.
If we’re truly committed to the notion that a child’s future should not be tied to zip codes or invisible lines on a map – even within the same county – then why cement these arbitrary rules for children outside of Milwaukee or Racine?